Literature Study GuidesTartuffeAct 1 Scenes 1 2 Summary

Tartuffe | Study Guide

Molière

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Tartuffe | Act 1, Scenes 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Act 1, Scene 1

Madame Pernelle has come for a visit and uses the opportunity to take each member of her son Orgon's household to task, refusing to allow the others to respond. Dorine is too talkative and "too saucy for a lady's maid." Damis is "a dunce" and will "leave [his] father broken-hearted." Mariane seems "innocent" and "demure" but is "secretive." Elmire spends too much on clothes. Her brother, Cléante, is too "full of worldly counsels ... [not] suitable for decent folk to hear." Damis points out, "Your man Tartuffe is full of holy speeches." But Madame Pernelle will hear nothing against Tartuffe—especially not from these "fools." Damis is incensed, calling Tartuffe a "carping hypocrite" and a censorious "bigot." Dorine agrees, adding Tartuffe "talks all the time." She calls it "a shame and a disgrace" that Tartuffe acts like he owns the house and treats them all like "slaves." What's more, she suspects he becomes angry when callers visit because of his jealousy over Elmire.

This starts a new disagreement. Madame Pernelle feels they entertain too much, which must bother the neighbors, too. Cléante says their neighbors will talk regardless of what they do, so they must live according to their conscience. Dorine adds people gossip to hide their own flaws or because "time has forced them to forgo" their own pleasures. Madame Pernelle again admonishes Elmire not to have so many guests. Slapping her maid, Flipote, and telling her to "wake up," Madame Pernell then leaves the house.

Act 1, Scene 2

Cléante and Dorine have a brief conversation, agreeing that although Madame Pernelle has been taken in by Tartuffe, her son Orgon is even worse. He seemingly prefers Tartuffe to his family. Tartuffe has tricked Orgon out of money and set up "a sort of Inquisition" in the house. What's more, Tartuffe's servant, Laurent, constantly preaches to the family's servants and takes away their little "vanities."

Analysis

Act 1, Scene 1 begins in media res—that is, in the middle of things. Madame Pernelle is about to leave in a huff. As the scene progresses, the audience gets the impression that the various members of her son Orgon's household have been disagreeing with her about Tartuffe, who will be discussed again briefly in the middle of the scene. Whatever their conversation has been, Madame Pernelle is not going to put up with it any longer.

Scene 1 introduces most of the characters in the play—even those who are not on stage. For the first half of the scene, most of the dialogue is spoken by Madame Pernelle. She is the mother of Orgon, the main character, and is just leaving the house after what appears to have been a short and unpleasant visit with her son's family. Before going, she offers a few accusatory words of advice to each of them and allows no reply. Within the course of the play, many of her accusations will be seen to be true of her rather than of those to whom they are addressed. To some extent, this is already apparent. For instance, Madame Pernelle complains "no one ... will pay attention for a single minute." But she is the one who shushes all the others and contradicts anything they say without considering it. She accuses her granddaughter's maid, Dorine, of talking too much, but talks incessantly herself. She calls her grandson, Damis, "foolish," yet she is the one being taken in by a con man—a charlatan Damis sees through. She doubts her granddaughter's innocence, but will later support Orgon's attempt to force Mariane to marry Tartuffe. Even polite, level-headed Cléante—Orgon's brother-in-law—is in her bad books for saying things "[not] suitable for decent folk to hear"; yet it is Madame Pernelle who at the end of the scene will call her own maid a "slut." Later, the old woman will chastise them all for not listening to Tartuffe and explain their "distaste and fear" of him. They react that way, she says, "Because he tells [them] what they're loath to hear." The audience recognizes she herself is refusing to listen to what her family is saying because she is "loath to hear" it.

These first minutes of the play are a microcosm of what Moliere sought to do in his comedies: to hold up a mirror allowing society to see itself and learn from what it sees. Madame Pernelle, however, doesn't look in that mirror. When her son returns to the house, the audience will see he is equally blinkered.

In the middle of Scene 1, Damis briefly turns the conversation to Tartuffe. The young man cites Tartuffe's "holy speeches" and "tyranny" and recognizes him as a "hypocrite" and a "bigot." It's natural Madame Pernelle's grandson, on whom she may well have doted when he was young, should be the one who still has the energy to challenge her. Damis is also quick to act and to speak even when it would be better if he kept still. He has quite a temper and anticipates he and Tartuffe "will shortly have it out."

Mariane's maid, Dorine, is also open with her thoughts. She is the one who provides the audience with the backstory on Tartuffe. Tartuffe arrived looking like a beggar, without "a shoe or shoestring to his name." But in a short time he has taken over the house. Madame Pernelle considers Tartuffe "a fine man" who is "out to save [their] souls." But Dorine sees more clearly: "You see him as a saint. ... I see right through him. He's a fraud." This is the central problem of the play. Orgon and Madame Pernelle have been duped by Tartuffe—a fraud and a con man who will ruin Orgon and his family. As the first scene makes clear, everyone else in the household sees through Tartuffe, and they will spend the rest of the play trying to make Orgon see him for what he is. Fortunately, as Dorine also intimates, Tartuffe does have a weakness: his interest in Elmire.

The final exchanges of Scene 1 turn to a discussion of upper class hypocrisy. As she does with Tartuffe, Madame Pernelle takes her neighbors at face value. The neighbors complain of the many visitors who come to the house; Madame Pernelle assumes from this that the quality of the visitors is low. However, it is just as likely the visitors are intellectuals coming to a salon. In the course of the play, it will become clear that Elmire and Cléante would revel in such good company. The neighbors claim to be virtuous, and so they must be. Cléante advises they should take no note of gossip; instead, they must "live by conscience' clear decrees." This makes good sense, but doesn't delve into the psychology of gossip. Dorine does. She doesn't see in black and white but in shades of gray. When Madame Pernelle talks of Orante—an older woman in the neighborhood who "condemns your mode of life most vehemently"—Dorine counters by saying Orante may seem like "a saint" now but only because she has no choice: Since she has lost her youthful attractions and no longer has the opportunity to be a sinner, "she quits a world which fast is quitting her."

In Scene 1 very little is heard from Elmire, Orgon's wife, who makes only a few statements necessary to her role as hostess. Only two words are heard from Mariane, his daughter. This silence reflects the standards of upper class French society at the time. Women were to be seen and not heard. Although their intelligence was not in any doubt, their social status was well below that of men.

Act 1, Scene 2 offers more details about Tartuffe and finally describes Orgon, the head of the family. Until recently, Orgon was a "wise and loyal" servant of the king. But now he has fallen under "Tartuffe's infatuating spell." Dorine describes how Orgon has stopped talking to his family and confides only in Tartuffe. He dotes on Tartuffe, giving the man everything he wants. He even "delights to see [Tartuffe] gorging like a swine." She describes complete and undiscerning infatuation. Tartuffe has used Orgon's obsession to dupe him out of money and has effectively taken over as head of the household. To underscore Tartuffe's usurped power, Dorine again describes how Laurent lords it over the other servants. When Laurent confiscated a handkerchief he'd found pressed in someone's book, Life of Jesus, he explained it "was a sin to juxtapose / Unholy vanities and holy prose." These are the last lines of the scene, which emphasizes their description of what Tartuffe does. He spouts "holy prose" while indulging in "unholy vanities" such as stuffing himself with good food, chugging down good port, and reveling in his lust for his host's wife.

It is worth noting here that theatrical conventions of the time followed Classical Aristotelian guidelines, laid down centuries earlier by the Greek philosopher and author Aristotle (384–22 BCE) in Poetics In accordance with what are known as the three unities or classical unities, plays should have just one setting, events should take place on one day, and there should be only one plot. Tartuffe follows these guidelines in that all the scenes are set at Orgon's house, everything happens the day he returns from the country, and the plot revolves around his family's attempt to make him see Tartuffe for what he really is. Any other settings and times are present only in recounted stories—as will be seen in Scene 4 of this act, when Orgon describes how Tartuffe first came to his attention at church. Similarly, minor plotlines are intricately interwoven with the issue of Tartuffe. For instance, Tartuffe is the one who disapproves of Mariane and Valère marrying, so their love problems—and Damis's—occur only because of Tartuffe and will be resolved once Mariane's father comes to his senses.

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